Every now and then, or perhaps more frequently, we ponder the Big Questions. Is there such a thing as a benevolent creator? Do we live on after death? Does anyone’s life matter? Stuff like that. A Big Question can even tackle a smaller matter. For example, when a day passes that seems inconsequential, which is the perfect time to become philosophical, we may look back on our mundane waking hours, and wonder: What makes a day meaningful?
Because sometimes a day seems like it has been a colossal waste of time. Take a day when I was a young mother, and I had to cancel an important meeting in order to stay home with my sick daughter. All I managed to do that day was sit with her and try to stay ahead of the cleanup after each throw-up. It was not a red-letter day. Or when I worked in the prison library, and on some days I felt like all I did was make photocopies, copy after copy after copy, robotically feeding the copier page after page after page. I suspected that a trained chimp could do my job. I was hardly changing the world. Or even now, as a retired person, spending a day recently when my biggest accomplishment was getting to the bottom of the ironing basket. Not exactly the great mountains of endeavors I’d planned to conquer in the vast free time of retirement. My conclusion: What a waste of a day.
Yet these are all tasks that must be done. Our days are full of the type of chores that are repetitive at best, messy at worst. They may seem meaningless, and we can think of much more exciting ways to spend a day. We tend to revere the days of landmark events, births, weddings, graduations, promotions, accomplishments, honors. Those days are magical. When we take a step back, however, we realize that even the most ordinary day, illuminated by the proper light, is extraordinary.
We may feel this most keenly when we remember things we can no longer do, or people we can no longer see. I think with longing of sitting on the front porch in the evening with my dad, shooting the breeze, accomplishing nothing, now that he is dead and gone. These idle times seemed meaningless until they were no longer possible. Yet if I try, as the Jesuits teach us, to find God in all things, I remember those moments with my dad as holy. I can even find God in just the memory of the front porch, because it signifies the love my father had for me, and I for him.
On those days when life is a bore, or when everything goes wrong, it helps to remind ourselves that every day is a gift. A new tomorrow is never guaranteed, which tints the current day with the highlight of now. While it would be helpful to know the date of our last day on earth — or maybe paralyzing, actually — we only have a good grasp of the day we are currently living. Does that alone make the day meaningful? Does a day of throw-up, or photocopies, or ironed shirts, form me into a better version of myself? I submit that yes, it does indeed. God is surely in all of those tiresome things, especially when they are done in love.
The Big Questions are most often only answered by faith, not by fact. Some things we don’t know, and some things we can’t know. Meaningfulness and meaninglessness are subjective concepts, after all. But maybe, on those slow days of nothing special, all the meaning we need is in the blessed pondering.